Irish schools need not teach English to junior infants


IRISH LANGUAGE schools will no longer have to teach English to junior infants following the withdrawal yesterday of a controversial directive by the Department of Education.

Circular 44, introduced by Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin in July 2007, directed all Irish language primary schools to teach English for a minimum of 30 minutes every day despite opposition from Irish language groups and educationalists.

The directive in effect forced Irish-medium primary schools to abandon their preferred approach of total immersion as a means of teaching the language.

Yesterday’s decision to withdraw the circular was announced by the office of Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe.

It follows two years of intensive campaigning by language groups and a legal case brought before the High Court by two schools, Gaelscoil Nás na Ríogh and Gaelscoil Mhic Easmainn in Tralee.

Language groups say the policy of total immersion – where students are taught exclusively through the medium of Irish – is the best method of learning a language.

The withdrawal of Circular 44 means the country’s 169 primary schools currently providing education through the medium of Irish can now delay the introduction of English until the end of the first term of senior infants. Schools where English is sought by a parent from the outset must agree to introduce the language at an earlier stage.

The Department of Education said it would now move to regulate the curriculum through legislation following consultation with stakeholders.

Gaelscoileanna Teo the representative body for Irish-medium schools which had sought total immersion for the first year of education, welcomed the move.

Chief executive Bláthnaid Ní Ghréacháin told The Irish Timesthe predominant demand of the campaign, the withdrawal of the circular, had been achieved.

She said the decision amounts to official recognition of the immersion method and that the next step was the development of an official model of early immersion education in Gaelscoileanna.

“This is very positive news and we whole-heartedly welcome the department’s decision to strengthen the Irish medium education sector, thereby allowing schools to continue to implement the most effective system of language acquisition available,” she said.

“This departure illustrates the positive effect of collaborative efforts and we are very grateful to all in the sector, including schools for their unrelenting lobbying as well as to the plaintiffs who fought against the enforcement of the circular since its publication.”

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, which had described the 2007 circular as “high-handed”, gave a cautious welcome to the move but warned the department against regulating the matter through the Education Act.

The organisation called on Mr O’Keeffe to accept the recommendations of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on the matter.

The department confirmed yesterday it would consult with its education partners and Irish language organisations before presenting the draft legislation to the Houses of the Oireachtas over the coming weeks.